NOV. 10, 2015 • The last five years have seen enormous changes for MMORPGs. Most notably the subscription model has been supplanted by freemium monetization, while game design has moved away from open world exploration to more directed and defined mission activities. Bucking this trend is the privately held Star Stable Entertainment AB, based in Stockholm, Sweden.
Star Stable Online is succeeding as a subscription MMORPG that offers an open world, story-based horse riding experience. The game has attracted more than 5 million users worldwide since 2012, a solid majority of which are younger females. Star Stable Online is played in more than 180 countries and has been localized in 11 languages so far.
DFC Intelligence went to Star Stable chief executive Fredric Gunnarson to learn how the firm came to develop an MMORPG for horse lovers, as well as springing to the forefront of successful games for female gamers.
DFC: Star Stable Entertainment is still a relatively new company that got its start in 2011. For those who may not be aware of you, please describe how the firm came about and what was the business plan?
Fredric: In 2011, we came to realize that there was an active community around a series of four games that were released on DVD in the mid-2000’s. The series was called Star Shine Legacy. We noted that YouTube videos were still being made, we saw CD-ROMs being traded on eBay and Amazon. Based on that insight, we decided to go for a rebirth of the game in a modern context. Star Stable Entertainment AB (the company) was founded to produce and market the game Star Stable Online, which was to be based on the IP from the earlier CD-ROM games, but digitally distributed and be multiplayer enabled.
DFC: Would Star Stable the company exist without the game? By that we mean, was the game a singular opportunity, or were you set on starting a game company no matter what?
Fredric: At the outset, the company´s sole purpose was to develop and launch the Star Stable Online game. Had it not been for the insight of the active community, there would be no company. Now that we are up and running and the players are loving the game, we have plenty of ideas of new things to do in the future.
DFC: PixelTales has developed Star Stable for you. The studio also was responsible for Barbie Horse Adventures: Riding Camp, which has similarities but is much less ambitious. Was Star Stable a concept that you created and took to Pixel Tales, or did Pixel Tales pitch an MMORPG horse game to you?
Fredric: When we founded Star Stable Entertainment AB, one of the first things we did was to acquire the Star Stable IP from the previous owner, a company that is no longer in existence.
Since Pixel Tales was the studio that had created the Star Stable Legacy games (and other horse related titles) they were the natural choice for us to use in developing Star Stable Online.
DFC: Please describe how the creative relationship worked with PixelTales… the back and forth, how design goals were set and executed, plus operating Star Stable and servicing customers after the game’s launch?
Fredric: The relationship with PixelTales could best be described as a creator/distributor relationship. Having worked with the IP for years, the PixelTales team had a clear idea and vision about how they wanted use the IP and what type of gameplay the community liked. Star Stable Entertainment AB funded the development, set the overall direction and built an organization for running and marketing the game.
DFC: When did you know you wanted to acquire PixelTales and bring them in-house?
Fredric: Initially the two-company structure did have its benefits, but over time it became apparent that running an MMO required a very close and interactive relationship between marketing and the game studio. This insight triggered the discussions that eventually led to Star Stable Entertainment´s acquisition of Pixel Tales’ team and technology. Now that the merger is complete, it is very clear to us that it was the right thing to do. This move will result ultimately in us providing a better game for our community.
DFC: After bringing PixelTales inside this summer, will the studio still have outside clients?
Fredric: We have so many great ideas in the pipeline for Star Stable Online and possible future games that there is no time to even consider external work.
DFC: We assume the vast majority of your audience is female? What is the age range for your product? Do you find consumers grow out of the game after a certain age or period of time? If so, what is the critical age?
Fredric: There’s a wonderfully broad range of players of all ages. We do get letters from more mature players who love the game and feel as though it allows them to continue living the equestrian adventures of their younger days. That said, our core target audience is girls between the ages of nine and 16.
DFC: Why did you think there was an opportunity for an open world horse game for women and girls? What comparables were out there that proved to you there was a market to serve and grow with?
Fredric: I had a very personal reflection. Loving games and having two daughters at home, I bought a lot of titles hoping to have a great time playing with my daughters. However, I found it really difficult to find games that they liked. You can look at any Top 10 list in a game store and you will find that there is very little that clearly targets a female audience. At the same time, I know from my background from social media companies that girls are very tech savvy and connected, and more or less drive the growth in social media. I was really convinced that there was an opening in the market, especially for a game with a big social component.
DFC: At a time when the rest of the industry was veering away from the subscription model for MMORPGs, what led you to buck the trend and stay with subscription despite advice against that strategy?
Fredric: Being a parent, I get really fed up with games that have a progressive monetization model, starting at free and grabbing the attention of the kids. Once they are emotionally invested, the game creates a need to buy items at ever increasing prices, until you hit a point where you just shut the game down. We want our players and their parents to feel comfortable and secure with our monetization model.
DFC: Can you tell us more about your business model? Our understanding is that when a player hits level five they must subscribe to continue. What percentage of players actually convert to paid at this point?
Fredric: As a new player, you can play the game for free up until level five. To get access beyond this point you need to become a Star Rider. We offer two models for this, either you get a monthly Star Rider subscription or a Star Rider Lifetime membership. Regardless of which you choose, you get a weekly allowance of 100 Star Coins that will get you through the game.
DFC: Players also have the ability to buy Star Coins? How does this option work? If a consumer buys a subscription or lifetime membership will they need more Star Coins?
Fredric: All Star Riders get weekly allowance of 100 Star Coins, which they can use for smaller purchases or save up for bigger purchases. There is however a continuing and sizeable demand for Star Coins.
DFC: You have seen an enormous increase in revenue since 2011, but from our understanding Star Stable Ent. had yet to turn a profit through 2014. Is 2015 the year you cross that threshold?
Fredric: We had our first revenues in 2012, and closed the year with a loss of approximately -$500,000. We were cash flow positive during the latter half of 2013, but finished the year with a loss of approximately -$400,000. During 2014 and 2015, we have more or less doubled revenues each year and have reinvested all our profits back into game development, infrastructure and continued growth.
DFC: Star Stable was originally available only in Sweden. Did you have an international growth plan from the start and what was your decision process in choosing additional markets?
Fredric: We made a soft launch in Sweden during late 2011 to test the platform, but quickly added English as the first step in addressing players outside of Sweden. Since then, we have translated the game based on those markets where we saw it gaining momentum. Soon after English came German, French, Dutch, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, and so on. We are now looking at adding three to four more languages to be released in 2016: Portuguese, Finnish and Czech. The amount of text in the game is about the same as the two books in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, so it takes a while.
DFC: Is localization done in house or do you work with an outside firm?
Fredric: We have an incredible multinational team consisting of 17 nationalities. They work as in-house translators for game content but also take care of the player communities in their respective language – dealing with everything from customer support queries to running contests on Facebook.
DFC: Star Stable has an ongoing story that is updated every Wednesday. Who is responsible for these updates and how far ahead are they mapped out?
Fredric: Our production schedule is about one to two months ahead of the releases. Typically, we have a very set plan for the coming month, a decent idea of the quarter ahead, and a high-level plan for the next 12 months. We want to keep the plan flexible to be able to react on impulses from the game team or the community.
DFC: Are the story updates localized before they are finalized, or after?
Fredric: The localization of the game is done once the development of new game quests are completed.
DFC: What have you learned from users in foreign markets that led to changes in the game?
Fredric: We have come to understand that horse-culture varies a lot between different national cultures. We adapt to this by offering a wide variety of horses and clothing styles to allow players to adapt to their preferences, whether it be Wild West-style or fancy dressage style of horsemanship.
DFC: Because so many of the users are pre-teens, how do you communicate with them? This is a sensitive issue in many markets and what extra measures do you have to take to satisfy the concerns of parents for their children?
Fredric: Interestingly, the U.S. appears to differ significantly from the many other countries when it comes to these concerns. Other countries have other concerns, such as how a call-to-action may or may not be formulated to children. We try to adhere to the strictest requirements of the respective markets, and apply these globally. For example, we are COPPA-compliant in the U.S., and follow this template in all of our other markets. We always want to have a good handle on local legislation in relation to advertising to and communicating with minors. We also use YouTube and other channels to inform and educate players and parents on how to behave online and about security aspects like never to share your password with friends.
DFC: Similarly, in-game communication with children is also a sensitive area. What ongoing precautions must be taken to oversee and prevent potential abuse?
Fredric: We work with several levels of security here. Firstly, only paying users can use the chat. One of the reasons for this is that we have a paper trace of who they are, in the case we need to either get in contact with them, to shut them off, or even to use as proof if needed. Secondly, we use advanced technology to filter the chat – white lists and black lists – and detect certain behaviors that we want to avoid. Thirdly, our nearly 20 customer support representatives spend a lot of time with the community and in the game to monitor the culture and behavior of the players. We are really glad to see that this hard work pays off.
DFC: Tell us more about the user community and how they are interacting with each other. With more than 150,000 user-created videos on YouTube now, what are these Star Stable players sharing with each other?
Fredric: I believe we are close to 200,000 videos now! The community is very passionate and loves to both interact with each other as well as produce and share content based on the game.
The chat in the game is the natural starting point. The riding clubs work as a social context where players meet and play together. Players also interact outside of the game, on different social media platforms such Facebook and Instagram. Lots of girls even meet up and become real friends.
Our players love to share their fun stories about their horses, characters, etc. on there own blogs. On YouTube and Instagram, they are very creative and edit pictures, series and even music videos with graphics from the game.
DFC: You have announced plans to have users install a desktop launcher that means they can get away from playing games in the browser? What were the issues of having a browser based game? What are concerns about requiring a client download?
Fredric: The larger browsers such as Chrome, Firefox, etc., are gradually closing the possibility to run our type of products from the browsers. This was causing issues for users, so we chose to make the move to a client download. We recently finalized the move and are pleased to say that the number of technical support issues we are experiencing are declining.
DFC: What are your expansion plans outside of Sweden? Where would it make sense for you to have a physical presence?
Fredric: Sweden in general and Stockholm in particular is a hot spot for gaming. We have a history of music, technology and entertainment, which all blending well in gaming. It makes a lot of sense for us to be here. We do have people on the ground in certain markets is to help with local partnerships and events.
DFC: Almost 60% of your staff is female. How do you find and vet them, and what is the something extra they bring to Star Stable?
Fredric: To be honest, we haven’t worked actively at recruiting female staff. It has just turned out so that in 60% of the cases, the most suitable people for the job openings we’ve had have been female. We have an amazing team and I do think that the high percentage of women is one of the reasons why the game and our communication outreach resonates so well with our female audience.
DFC: You have some companion mobile apps in the works for Star Stable. What utility will these apps offer subscribers?
Fredric: We’ll be moving some of the social aspects of the game to mobile, so users can plan their game away from their PCs.
DFC: Does Star Stable Ent. have plans for any separate IP in the future? If so, what kind of game would you like to make next?
Fredric: We have lots of plans! Both for Star Stable and for potential new games. Whatever we do, it will be based on the same IP: the wonderful island of Jorvik.